Adding Tests to Enhance Learning

An online platform can serve as a good arena to test ideas regarding learning. Experiments can be designed easily and with digital resources, the experiment can be easily scaled up. One hypothesis that can be tested is how regular tests aid in learning. Although tests are usually associated with assessment, tests can play a role in enhancing learning. It is a source of motivation. It helps guide the students and in so many ways, refocuses and reminds what concepts are key. Karl K. Szpunar, Novall Y. Khan, and Daniel L. Schacter of Harvard University recently published a study in the Proceedings of the National Academies USA:

Interpolated memory tests reduce mind wandering and improve learning of online lectures

The recent emergence and popularity of online educational resources brings with it challenges for educators to optimize the dissemination of online content. Here we provide evidence that points toward a solution for the difficulty that students frequently report in sustaining attention to online lectures over extended periods. In two experiments, we demonstrate that the simple act of interpolating online lectures with memory tests can help students sustain attention to lecture content in a manner that discourages taskirrelevant mind wandering activities, encourages task-relevant note-taking activities, and improves learning. Importantly, frequent testing was associated with reduced anxiety toward a final cumulative test and also with reductions in subjective estimates of cognitive demand. Our findings suggest a potentially key role for interpolated testing in the development and dissemination of online educational content.
The results are summarized in the following figure:

T, RS, NT correspond to Tested, Restudy and Nontested groups. Above figure captured from Interpolated memory tests reduce mind wandering and improve learning of online lectures

Tests given during breaks between segments of a lecture improve learning on three measures: less mind wandering, taking notes, and performance in the final exam. The tested group even performs significantly better than those who restudied the material. For the restudy group, the interpolated memory tests were likewise provided but with the correct responses. This demonstrates that there is something inherent in testing that helps learning outside of simple recalling of key concepts. In these experiments, the online lecture segments are about 5 minutes long. The lecture is on basic elements of statistics. The break between segments is three minutes long, the first minute is on solving simple arithmetic problems and the following two minutes are either a test on the previous segment (tested) or additional arithmetic exercises (nontested). For the restudy group, the individuals are just shown the test questions together with answers during the final 2-minute period of the break. 

This is quite a small study, but its findings are significant. One point worth mentioning is that each segment here is only 5 minutes long. One might ask why there are too many breaks. Is the length of the segment the longest one could bear while watching an online lecture? The fact that interpolated memory tests are given at such high frequency provides useful insights on how online learning should be tailored to improve efficiency. But clearly, the above experiment has only scratched the surface. Substantially more research needs to be done.